Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team kicks off their 2021 Olympic tournament this week in Tokyo. Here is our preview of what awaits them in Tokyo, as Canada looks to reach the podium for the 3rd straight Olympic tournament.
It’s finally upon us.
Over 1800 days after the last summer Olympics, and a year after they were originally supposed to happen, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally here, as athletes from all over their world are getting set to compete to be the best in their respective domains.
One of those teams will be Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team, who are getting set to begin a quest that they’ll hope finishes with them reaching the podium for their 3rd Olympics in a row, having earned back-to-back bronze medals in 2012 and 2016.
As they look to take a step forward and shoot for a gold medal, they’ll want to use Tokyo to prove that they are among the elite of the sport, erasing concerns that they’d fallen back after being regarded as one of the world’s best for a good chunk of the 2010s.
Despite that, they never managed to get over the hump some thought they’d get over in that period of time, and that was making the final of a major tournament, something they’re yet to do in 10 appearances across the Olympics and the World Cup.
So heading into their 11th appearance at a major tournament in Tokyo, the big question remains for Canada – is this the time they finally get over that hump?
With this being a deep tournament field, it certainly won’t be easy, but this Canadian team has built up a solid group of their own, giving them hope that they have what it takes to make that happen.
Because of that, they’ve headed into this summer with a sense of optimism. With a new head coach, Bev Priestman, who was hired last fall after Canada and their old head coach, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, parted ways last summer, their performance as of late has quickly quieted concerns that a coaching change this soon before the Olympics would hurt their fortunes.
Instead, they’ve taken a step forward in their matches this year, all while integrating some new faces into the squad, building up a deep group of players. Led by usual suspects such as captain Christine Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan and Stephanie Labbe, among others, they’ve been joined by the likes of Evelyne Viens, Quinn, Vanessa Gilles, Gabrille Carle and Kailen Sheridan, increasing competition for starting spots.
Now, thanks to that, this Canadian team has slowly started to carve out a new tactical identity, all the while building up their depth to complement their stars, giving them the recipe to be a dangerous team on their day.
That has manifested itself this year, such as the game in April where Canada beat 6th-ranked England 2-0 in the UK, marking their first win over a tier-one opponent in nearly 3 years, showing what this Canadian team is capable of.
They’ll have to find a way to channel that sort of spirit over the course of the 6 games that one needs to play to win the Olympics, but after fears that this summer might be a transition year, there’s a belief now that they can once again chase their goal of ‘changing the colour of the medal’, something they’ve long-promised heading into this summer.
But to start, Canada must navigate a tough but straightforward tournament format, as this Olympic tournament will consist of 12 teams, split into 3 groups.
Here’s how the groups are split up.
*FIFA Rankings in parentheses.
**Hosts in bold.
***Great Britain can consist of players from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but given that 19/22 of their players and their head coach is from England, we used England’s ranking in their place.
Group E: Great Britain (6th), Canada (8th), Japan (10th), Chile (37th).
Group F: Netherlands (4th), Brazil (7th), China (15th), Zambia (104th).
Group G: United States (1st), Sweden (5th), Australia (9th), New Zealand (22nd).
As seen here, Canada sits in Group A with hosts Japan, along with Great Britain and Chile, in what is expected to be a tough but winnable group for Priestman’s side.
With the top 2 sides in each group, along with the 2 best third-place sides, all advancing to the knockout stages, Canada will at the very least be expected to progress out of the group, but the goal will most certainly be to do so as one of the top 2 teams.
From there, they’d participate in a straight single-elimination knockout tournament for the final 8 teams that progress from the group stages, going all the way from the quarter-finals to the finals, along with a third-place game to win a bronze medal for the two losing semi-finalists.
That means for any team that is to compete in any of the medal games, they’ll play 6 games over the course of the next 2 weeks in Japan, showing why this tournament is considered one of the most gruelling in international soccer.
For a Canadian team that has gone the distance in both of the last 2 tournaments, playing all 6 games in both instances, they’ll be used to that, especially considering that 13 out of their 22 players played in the last Olympics, including another 2 that were also involved as alternates.
So with all that in mind, Canada will hope to feel comfortable navigating this tough and congested format, as they’ve started preparing for it as soon as Priestman was hired.
And along the way, there should be plenty of memorable matchups, including Japan and Great Britain in the group stages, as well as the potential for Brazil or the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, as well as the US in the semi-finals, if they make it that far.
It’s too early to project how the bracket will go down, but some of the potential matchups brought up by this format are tantalizing, so at the very least, there will be lots of good soccer on display during this tournament.
The road here:
Shifting elsewhere, it’s worth noting that Canada comes into this tournament in decent form so far in 2021, having done pretty well since Priestman has been in charge.
Having already qualified for the Olympics back in February in 2020, where they navigated CONCACAF’s Olympic qualifiers with relative ease under Heiner-Moller, Priestman’s spent this year focusing on these Olympics, with her first immediate task being to get her team up to speed for these games.
So to get an idea of how she’s fared in that quest, here are Canada’s results so far in 2021:
FIFA Rankings in parentheses.
United States (1st) 1-0 Canada (8th)
Argentina (35th) 0-1 Canada (8th)
Canada (8th) 0-2 Brazil (7th)
Wales (34th) 0-3 Canada (8th)
England (6th) 0-2 Canada (8th)
Canada (8th) 0-0 Czech Republic (27th)
Brazil (7th) 0-0 Canada (8th)
Netherlands (4th) 3-3 Canada (8th)
As seen here, despite playing 5 of their 8 games against top 10 teams in 2021, Canada has a record of 3W-2L-3D in 2021, which certainly isn’t bad considering the calibre of opposition they’ve faced.
Yes, all of the games were friendlies, and the last one against the Netherlands was a closed-door friendly that both teams used as a secret test run for the Olympics, but at the same time, all of the teams involved didn’t play the matches as they were friendlies.
Because of that, you can glean a few conclusions, such as the fact that this Canadian team is quite solid defensively, as they managed 5 clean sheets in 8 games, only conceding more than 3 goals once, which bodes well heading into the Olympics.
The offence is a bit of a worry, as they’ve only scored 9 times, and have been shut out 4 times, but the fact that they scored 3 goals against the 4th-ranked Netherlands in their last game before the games is a positive sign, even if it came at the cost of 3 goals against.
So all things considered, for Canada to be riding a streak of 5 games undefeated heading into this tournament is not a bad thing at all, and they’ll look to keep that positive momentum when they kick off against Japan on July 21st.
Moving on, here’s the 22-player squad that Canada is leaning on for this Olympics.
#1 GK- Stephanie Labbé | SWE / FC Rosengård
#18 GK- Kailen Sheridan | USA / NJ/NY Gotham FC
#22 GK- Erin McLeod | USA / Orlando Pride
#3 CB- Kadeisha Buchanan | FRA / FCF Olympique Lyonnais
#14 CB- Vanessa Gilles | FRA / FC Girondins de Bordeaux
#4 CB- Shelina Zadorsky | ENG / Tottenham Hotspur
#2 FB- Allysha Chapman | USA / Houston Dash
#21 FB- Gabrielle Carle | USA / Florida State University
#10 FB- Ashley Lawrence | FRA / Paris Saint-Germain
#8 FB- Jayde Riviere | USA / University of Michigan
#17 M- Jessie Fleming | ENG / Chelsea FC
#7 M- Julia Grosso | CAN / University of Texas at Austin
#5 M- Quinn | USA / OL Reign
#11 M- Desiree Scott | USA / Kansas City NWSL
#20 M- Sophie Schmidt | USA / Houston Dash
#16 F- Janine Beckie | ENG / Manchester City FC
#9 F- Adriana Leon | ENG / West Ham United FC
#15 F- Nichelle Prince | USA / Houston Dash
#6 F- Deanne Rose | USA / University of Florida
#12 F- Christine Sinclair | USA / Portland Thorns FC
#13 F- Evelyne Viens | USA / NJ/NY Gotham FC
#19 F- Jordyn Huitema | FRA / Paris Saint-Germain
We’ve already done an in-depth breakdown of Canada’s squad for the Olympics, so if you want to learn more about the 22 players brought to Tokyo, you can check that out, but it’s just worth noting a few things with this squad.
First, it’s important to point out how balanced it is in terms of age, as 6 of the 22 players are over the age of 30, while 6 are 23 or younger, leaving the other 8 to sit between the ages of 24 and 29.
Secondly, it’s also worth noting that this squad was originally just 18 players, as is the case for previous Olympics, but a recent roster change has allowed an expansion to 22 players, allowing teams to call up 4 extra players.
With teams being previously able to name 4 alternates, Canada chose to add their 4 alternates, Jordyn Huitema, Sophie Schmidt, Gabrielle Carle and Erin McLeod, to their squad rounding out their original 18 player squad.
For games, Canada is still only allowed to dress 18 players, but they’re allowed to pick from any of the 22 players in their squad, as before the alternates would’ve only been allowed to dress in case of an injury for one of the original 18.
That’s good news for a Canadian team that had to make some hard decisions on their original 18, as they’ll feel that their 22-player roster is among one of the deeper ones in Japan, giving them an advantage.
3 Players to Watch:
Lastly, here are 3 players out of those 22 to watch out for on this Canadian team, as they’ll look to lean on these names heavily throughout the next few weeks.
First, there’s Canada’s 38-year-old veteran, Sinclair, who is getting set to play in her 8th major tournament for Canada, having debuted all the way back at the 2003 World Cup as a 20-year-old, having made her senior debut a few years earlier in 2000.
Since then, she’s been one of the best players in the world, scoring goals at a historic rate, last year becoming the player with the most goals in international soccer history when she scored her 185th goal, a title she still holds today with 186 goals.
So even if she’s certainly getting not any younger at this stage, Canada’s captain will be expected to be one of Canada’s marquee players once again this summer, adding to her lofty list of honours, of which she’d definitely love to add an Olympic gold medal.
Having averaged over 0.5 goals per game the last 3 years for her club team, the Portland Thorns, she still has a lot in the tank at 38, so expect her to play a big part for Canada once again this summer.
Reaching near the end of a long and distinguished career, you know that she’ll want to go out with a bang, so keep a close eye on her whenever Canada is playing, as many have made a tradition of doing these last 2 decades.
Then, up second we’ve got one of Canada’s younger players, the 23-year-old Fleming, who despite her young age, has already played in 2 World Cups, 1 Olympics and has over 80 caps for her country, having burst on the scene at just 15 back in 2013.
Since then, she’s grown into one of Canada’s most important players, as her play in midfield has made her a big part of Priestman’s system, with her transitional play being a big reason why.
Ever since making a big move to Chelsea, the current English champions, last year, she’s taken some big strides forward in her game, becoming one of the world’s best ball progressers.
Just to get an idea of how good, consider this. Despite only playing 443 minutes spread across 14 league appearances in England’s top flight, the Women’s Super League, she was in the 90th percentile for WSL midfielders in passes attempted, 90th percentile in pass completion, 85th percentile in progressive passes, 86th percentile in progressive carries, 90th percentile in dribbles completed, 94th percentile in touches in the attacking penalty area and 89th percentile for progressive passes received, all on a per 90 basis.
That’s phenomenal numbers for a young player in just their first year in a new league, especially for one who didn’t play consistently, and just gives an idea of the sort of talent that she possesses.
So expect Canada to do their very best to try and unleash her during this tournament. Whenever she’s been at her best this year, so has Canada, and they realize that, which is why a midfield trio of Fleming, Quinn and Desiree Scott will be expected to stick together in Tokyo, with Quinn and Scott proving to be quite good partners to complement Fleming’s impressive skillset in their minutes as a trio this year.
Lastly, it’s important to highlight one of the players that has and will continue to play a big role in Canada’s quest to maintain their defensive solidity, and that’s Buchanan, who as a 4-time Champions League winner, brings a wealth of skill, experience and leadership to the backline despite still only being 25 years of age.
Ever since she burst onto the scene at the 2015 World Cup, she’s been a rock at the back for Canada, so expect the Lyon defender to be at the heart of Canada’s efforts to bring home a third straight medal, having played a big part in helping Canada get their 2nd back in 2016.
From the defensive end, where she makes her presence felt aerially and on the ground with her smarts, speed and good defensive positioning, to the offensive end, where she is always a threat off of set pieces, she’ll be a handful for both opposing attackers and defenders to have to deal with.
Blessed with solid centre back options such as Shelina Zadorsky and Vanessa Gilles that can both pair alongside her, Canada won’t have to solely rely on Buchanan, but don’t be surprised if she has her fingerprints all over any of Canada’s success at this tournament, as she has done in the past.
Honourable mention: Janine Beckie
But because it was hard to just stick to 3 players to watch, there was one last shout out we wanted to give out, and that was to Janine Beckie, who comes into this tournament as a potential x-factor for Canada.
Having scored 3 goals at the 2016 Olympics at just 21, she’s got a flair for the big tournaments, and will look to show that off once again this summer.
Coming off of a strong year for Manchester City, one where she was a big contributor for City in limited minutes, she will look to be an important part of this Canadian offence, something she’s quietly become with her impressive 31 goals in just 6 years as part of this program.
Just to get an idea of what she can bring to Canada offensively, check out her percentile chart from her WSL season with City this past year.
As seen here – that’s a lot of green. For a Canadian team where there’s a lot of questions being asked of where the goals might come from, some of these numbers suggest that Beckie could be a big part of that solution, easing the load of someone like Sinclair.
Sitting in the 93rd percentile for non-penalty goals, 98th percentile for non-penalty Expected Goals (xG), 94th percentile for shots, 85th percentile for Expected assists (xA) and 84th percentile for shot-creating actions is very impressive, showing that even if her finishing isn’t always there, she can generate chances at an elite rate.
Plus, as seen by her progressions stats, most of which sit between the 84th and 95th percentile for stats such as progressive passes, progressive carries and touches in the opposing penalty area, her chance creation comes in many forms, showing why Canada might be wise to try and get the most out of her in Tokyo.
So all-in-all, this Canadian team promises to be quite the interesting side to watch for these Olympics, as they have every reason to believe that they can do some damage this summer in Tokyo.
From a solid roster, to a new young head coach, plus the fact that they’re in good form, Canada can comfortably head into these Olympics knowing that if they do well, they’re definitely a threat to get on the podium.
Can they go on and win?
It’s too early to tell, but considering what they’ve gone through to get to this point, they’ve done well to set themselves up for these games, so now all that’s left is for them to play the games and see what they can do.
As part of an exciting summer for Canadian soccer, this Canadian team has a chance to write another chapter, and that begins on Wednesday when they take on hosts Japan with the opportunity to play spoiler, hopefully starting a journey that ends with a medal around their necks.
Up Next: Canada vs Japan, Wednesday, July 21st, 3:30 AM PDT, 6:30 AM EDT (Sapporo Stadium, Sapporo)
Cover Photo via: Gerard Franco/Canada Soccer